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Billions of federal dollars could replace lead pipes. Flint has history to share

Allen Overton, pastor of Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, worries that Black and underserved communities may be left behind when new federal money for water infrastructure is used up by wealthier communities. [Cydni Elledge for NPR]
Allen Overton, pastor of Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, worries that Black and underserved communities may be left behind when new federal money for water infrastructure is used up by wealthier communities.

On the day we visit Jeneyah McDonald, she has five pallets' worth of bottled water in a corner of her kitchen.

"Oh, that's low," she says.

McDonald buys more every week for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth. She also has a filter on her tap. She checks the light to see it remains green.

"I try and keep a clear glass by the sink so I can fill it up to see with some paper behind it," she says. "I mean, who else is doing that?"

These are, in fact, fewer worries than she once went through. NPR has been speaking with McDonald since the state of Michigan first declared a state of emergency over Flint's water crisis in 2016. Back then, she spent much of her days attaining enough clean water, and said she had joint pain from opening so many bottles.

"It can't consume my life anymore," she says. "It's just part of my budget now."

It's a significant part of her budget. She spends $50 each month on bottled water, another $100 a month on filters for the tap. Her monthly water bill from the city is almost $200 on top of that.

Beyond the continuing financial cost, the pain McDonald feels about what her government did to her family has not gone away, either. She and her husband — born and raised in Flint — have two boys. The younger one has developmental delays, and she wonders whether it had anything to do with lead in the water.

"It's not like we're talking about: We watered our grass, and it all turned brown," she says. "We're talking about: Our children drink this water, and they're damaged. They're hurt for life."

When the city of Flint switched its water supply in 2014, Flint officials failed to properly treat it, allowing the water to corrode the lead from service pipes. Officials insisted the water was safe, though internal emails have shown that they continued to tell people the water was drinkable even when state leaders knew it was poisoned.

Young children are at greatest risk for developing cognitive and other health issues from lead exposure. This month, a federal judge approved a $626 million settlement for victims of the Flint water crisis, where nearly 80% of the money is set aside for children.

Almost $100 million later, the city of Flint has replaced more than 90% of the lead pipes that run to people's homes as of September. And the newly signed federal infrastructure legislation could pump $55 billion into clean water efforts, with $15 billion of those funds set aside toward lead pipe remediation nationwide.

Experts who follow the issue expressed excitement that lead pipe issues were being addressed, both in Flint and nationwide. But they also cautioned that the amount of federal funding being offered was only the first of many needed investments.

And as the experiences of Flint residents prove, it will take more than spending to rebuild trust in the water supply — and in government.

The promise of national spending

Erik Olson is a senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He cites one report that estimates the total need for water infrastructure repairs and upgrades in the United States at $1 trillion.

He says the current amount allocated for revamping water infrastructure is "not sufficient" — but he says the funding is still an extremely important and overdue investment.

"Frankly, for decades we've had sort of a 'let them drink lead' policy at the federal government," Olson says. And many states and local governments simply have not addressed this problem, even though they've known for decades that it's a huge issue."

Olson calls this a once-in-a-generation chance to "fix our aging, decrepit water infrastructure and remove these lead pipes ... if we can make the investment now."

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician whose research revealed that kids in Flint were being poisoned. She says she was giddy when she heard the infrastructure bill included money for the removal of lead pipes.

"This is something that we should have done generations ago," she says. "We've known lead has been a poison literally for centuries, and we really lack the political will to do anything about it. We've kind of punted the ball."

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are at least 6 million lead services lines in the U.S., but some experts estimate that number is actually between 9 to 12 million.

Public health officials — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the Environmental Protection Agency — all say there is no safe level of lead you can consume. Hanna-Attisha describes lead as a "potent, irreversible toxin" and a "poison" that can lower IQ levels, impact behavior and lead to developmental and attention problems in children.

Beyond the health benefits, Hanna-Attisha emphasizes the economic benefit to lead pipe removal. She describes it as an investment in the country's "greatest and most valuable resource — our children."

"If we actually eliminated lead exposure, got the lead out of pipes and plumbing and paint and old houses and soil and dirt, we would actually save our nation about $80 billion a year from societal savings of increased economic productivity, decreased cost to special education and health care and criminal justice," she says.

Recent U.S. census data show a majority of Flint residents are Black, and that nearly 39% of the city's residents live in poverty. That isn't lost on Hanna-Attisha either.

"We also know that it's a form of environmental racism," she says. "The burden of lead does not fall equally on our nation's children. Poor kids, Black and brown kids, communities of color are disproportionately shouldering the burden of lead poisoning and other environmental contaminants."

In Flint, it all comes down to trust

Allen Overton is pastor at Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Flint. He was born and raised in the city and was one of the people who sued Flint and Michigan state officials, resulting in a settlement to get the lead pipes replaced.

He worries more affluent communities will get the new federal infrastructure funding before disadvantaged communities do — that inside deals and bloated contracts are going to "suck up the money."

"And very little is going to get done," Overton says. "A lot of people are going to get rich and urban communities are going to fall by the wayside."

The water crisis left him with a lot of mistrust. The drinking fountains in his church have been turned off — most of them removed. He doesn't trust tap water anywhere.

He doubts that trust can be rebuilt.

"The worst part of it all is that you trusted people that you thought you could trust," Overton says. "If you can't trust the government to tell you the truth about water, then we got some serious problems in America."

Michigan State Sen. Jim Ananich understands that sentiment. A Democrat, he is minority leader in the Senate and lives in Flint. He's been fighting to get justice for his city since the earliest days of this crisis.

"The motives were wrong, the way they handled it was wrong, the way they informed people was wrong," Ananich says. "So I'd say: Do the exact opposite of what happened here."

He's thrilled the rest of the country is going to receive money to replace lead pipes. He calls the legislation "a game-changer."

But he knows that his constituents in Flint have developed mistrust of government. So his advice to communities now, when the money from the infrastructure package comes around, is to just take the money.

"Obviously, we need to have a trust in our American institutions, which obviously need to have a lot of trust built," he says. "I can't be idealistic right now. I've got to be: 'Just take the money, improve your communities.' And ... we can fix trust in federal government later."

Years later, Jeneyah McDonald now knows that the pipes leading to her home are copper, not lead. She says for peace of mind, she wishes authorities had just replaced the pipes anyway. Her family now uses tap water to bathe, and to fill up the pool in her front yard.

"It just got to the point of either use the water or move," McDonald said. "And you know, we're not going to move anywhere. This is home. So we just have to have faith that we're going to be OK."

McDonald sees what happened in Flint as part of a larger pattern of racial injustice. She also says it's not a coincidence that this all took place in a city that is majority Black.

"When are we going to look at the true issue that it is a race issue?" she asks.

But she is hopeful the rest of the country can at least learn from what her city went through, and use the money in the infrastructure package to good effect.

"It is long overdue, long overdue," McDonald says. "This country is old. And let's be real, it needs an overhaul, inside and out. And it should not take for a whole city to get hurt for someone to say, 'Hey, maybe we should start doing something about this.'"

This story is part of an All Things Considered series looking at the state of American infrastructure and the federal legislation addressing it. Ashley Brown edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.